What religion are people in East Africa?
Christian? Muslim? Tribal mythologies? Witchcraft? How about dread-locked Rastafari?
Contrasting people of Europe or China, those in Africa are especially open to religion. This openness combined with the influence of outsiders over recent centuries, means a lot of different faiths have taken hold. In June, I was able to explore traditional spirituality of natural remedies and spells by visiting a medicine man. A month earlier, I documented an animated worship service of Tanzania’s–and the region’s–dominant religion: Christianity.
(Christianity is doing so well in Africa, in fact, that my brother once told me that his pastor had joked about how mission workers from Africa need to come spread the Word to Americans.)
However, this region of the world also butts up against the Islam-dominated countries of North Africa and the Middle East. There is a strong minority of Muslims in East Africa. In Kampala, Uganda, I was finally able to explore this faith by way of visiting probably the most glamorous Muslim house of worship in all of East Africa.
Earlier this same morning, I was also able to visit a gorgeous temple for a smaller, more modern, and intriguing up and coming religion: Bahá’í.
I awoke on my small mattress on the floor at Nathy’s home. Once again on this trek, I was hosted by a member of the Web travel community, Couchsurfers. Also once again, I was privileged not just with a place to stay while visiting but was introduced to opportunities I would ordinarily have missed–such as my first destination this morning.
I rose in this small room, threw on some clothes out of my suitcase laying on the hard carpet floor, and then exited the room to the cozy unit; the kitchen, bathroom, Nathy’s room, and living room were all just a few feet away. This was nice digs with a green front yard and a heavy, black gate leading out to the neighborhood.
Having already left for work–an organization that offers managing/funding assistance to area non-profits–I recalled Nathy telling me the night before about a beautiful, new temple within walking distance. The morning of September 23, I exited the house, rolled open the heavy gate with the slow weight of an old lady spinning the Price is Right wheel, and greeted the neighborhood on my way to the temple.
Making a large “L” as instructed by Nathy, I saw the dome of the temple in the distance after hanging a right.
Past the regular commotion seen along the way, things were open, quiet, and clean as I approached the driveway running up a hill. Nearing the top, I entered the grounds of the Bahá’í temple property. First thing I noticed was the cemetery:
Limbo is an afterlife belief associated with the Catholic faith. But this wasn’t a Catholic church.
This is what makes Bahá’í unique.
This faith was founded by a Persian named Bahá’u’lláh:
Bahá’u’lláh, a Persian, lived in the 1800s, and his philosophy leveraged the advantage of hindsight and contemporary thinking. The Bahá’í believe in the legitimacy of all the major religions, the divinity of their respective prophets, and the sacredness of their respective holy books. I had all sorts of questions for the nice young woman from Kenya, the volunteer guide who approached visitors.
Mainly, I wanted to know how this faith bridges the gaps. Which religious holidays do they observe? All of them? That’s a lot of days off work.
What about creation stories, ceremonies, and beliefs such as the afterlife?
“Our spirit will be with God,” she said to me.
“In heaven,” I concluded aloud.
“With God,” she softly retorted.
Indeed, along with their openness to other belief systems, this faith does have its own holy days, texts, and tenets. (You can read more about Bahá’í here.)
After we spoke, she showed me the temple:
Inside, the temple was as pristine, modern, and centering as you’d expect from views of the outside. Rows of hardwood pews faced an ornate alter and beautiful artwork hung on the interior octagonal walls. The whole space was lightly and brightly colored and emanated a calm universal in all houses of worship.
After the Bahá’í temple, I hopped on a motorbike taxi to see Kampala’s famous house of worship standing in the center of the city.
One the way, more of the city:
After several minutes, we were getting close.
We rolled up to the open gate before this grand structure. I hopped off the bike and sauntered into this front yard of smooth stonework.
Before approaching the building, I walked along a series of vendors to the right selling Muslim gear and literature.
Then my guide approached, a smaller-statured Ugandan named Ashiraf.
“It’s an Egyptian name,” he’d tell me.
We approached the entrance.
Up the steps, we were now on the level of the mosque.
I also wondered whether I’d be allowed inside the mosque–I’m not Muslim. And if so, would there some special pre-entrance procedure to undertake? I was comically naive.
Later, a German woman would need to wear a head scarf, but for men, all Ashiraf said to me was, “Take off your shoes.”
So I did. And in we went.
For the first time in my life, I visited a mosque. As you can see, his wasn’t your everyday, ho-hum Islam house of worship, either. This was the grand, Gaddafi Mosque.
“Gaddafi?” I thought to myself upon hearing its name. “They don’t mean…?”
Yes, they do.
Muammar Gaddafi, the recently-assassinated dictator of Libya, funded this structure completed in 2006. My guide said people here were very sad to hear about his death in 2011. I’m not sure why there was a strong relationship between the tyrant and Uganda.
“He was down to Earth,” said my guide. He would visit Kampala and go out and interact with the people.
Regardless of its origins, I was impressed by the place. This large hall used only for weekly service and special occasions was constructed with powerful acoustics. Stand in the center underneath the dome, and you’ll think you’re speaking directly into your ear.
Other aspects of the hall stood out as well.
Ashiraf read the translation. But you don’t speak the Koran, you sing it.
Check out the acoustics, this man’s lovely singing, and a gain a feel for this worship in this footage from the tour:
Through the imagery, the song, and the message Ashiraf recited, I understood for the first time the draw to the Islam faith. I know in today’s context, there are many negative feelings toward it, but stripped down to its fundamentals, Islam a powerfully meditative, humbling, and grounding practice–and I deciphered all this just from the light exposure I had this day.
After wandering this room, my guide took me back outside.
My tower wish was granted.
One step at a time x 300 = awesome view:
Despite Muslims being less than a quarter of the population of Kampala and Uganda as a whole, this mosque has the enviable real estate formerly home to British-built government buildings.
I zoomed in on some youngsters below:
Then I scaled back for a panorama shot:
From somewhere down in the crevices of Kampala, Ashiraf pointed and said, “That’s the largest slum in Kampala.”
“Really? Where?” I asked. “I want to visit it.”
I looked out there, seeing what I thought might be the slum. But it wasn’t the bird’s eye view that I desired; I wanted the human’s view walking within. What was a slum in East Africa like? Was it as rundown as my stereotype? Was it dangerous? Overall, I wanted to see the people, their day to day conditions, their lives, their existence and deportment in such an environment.
Ashiraf interrupted my thought, saying while standing behind me, “I know a man who gives tours of the slum.”
I turned, but though it seemed an incredible coincidence and opportunity, I actually wasn’t shocked. “Of course you do,” was more resembling of my thinking.
Adventure travel, opening yourself up to what comes next, to what Life has in store; the clockwork of this free existence had chimed the wonderful and wondrous melodies from this man in the mosque. Now the rhythms of life strummed along to provide a slum tour this afternoon. Life is reliably amazing.
And this afternoon, I’d take that tour and see conditions you’d probably suspect–yet make no less an impact when seeing them with your own eyes…